Today here at Albion Calling I am interviewing two young scholars of Western esotericism, Jimmy Elwing and Aren Roukema, who are the masterminds behind the new open access peer-reviewed journal, Correspondences: An Online Journal for the Academic Study of Western Esotericism. We discuss their academic backgrounds and their role in the development of the journal, alongside their thoughts on what open access publishing has to offer scholarship.
|Jimmy Elwing (left) and Aren Roukema (right)
[EDW] Both of you are
currently engrossed in your rMA postgraduate studies at the University of
Amsterdam’s Center for History of Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents, one
of the world’s few academic departments devoted to the study of Western
esotericism. What made the two of you decide to move to the Netherlands and
study there; was the decision influenced by your personal backgrounds or
When I conducted my undergraduate studies at the University of Gothenburg, I
had the opportunity of having Henrik Bogdan as lecturer and supervisor, and it
was largely he who made me aware of the academic study of Western esotericism.
Having taken an introductory course in Western esotericism, as well as a
tutorial on Renaissance esotericism, I decided to dedicate my BA thesis to the
subject—and I really enjoyed doing so. When conducting my undergraduate
research I realised that there is so much left to be done in the field, and
when I discussed this with Henrik he recommended me to increase my knowledge of
the field by applying for the MA programme at the Center for History of
Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents. I applied, got accepted, and moved to
Amsterdam—and the rest is history.
me the decision to study at the University of Amsterdam was personal. I am a
Dutch citizen, but I grew up in Canada and had always wanted to live in the
Netherlands. I knew about the Center but I hadn’t really planned to focus on
Western esotericism, since my knowledge of the field was comprised of whatever
I had gleaned from reading Umberto Eco and Dan Brown. However, I was interested
in learning more so I took a course with Wouter Hanegraaff. His ideas on the
importance of esoteric currents to Western history and culture were very
convincing so I decided to further immerse myself.
[EDW] You’re both involved
in the wider study of western esotericism, but my readers might be interested
in learning precisely what areas of this fascinating topic you are focusing in
on? What research projects are you working on at the moment, and will any of it
see publication any time soon?
I have a wide array of interests within the field. In the past I have been
doing research on sexuality and esotericism, more specifically on Ida Craddock
and nineteenth century spiritualism, looking at issues of gender, sexuality and
feminism in the study of Western esotericism. My current research is on
contemporary forms of witchcraft, more specifically on what is commonly
referred to—at least by some practitioners—as “traditional” or “modern
traditional witchcraft.” My research into contemporary witchcraft is largely
based on questions of how practitioners construct the history of their
witch-cult and what strategies—political, rhetorical, polemical, etcetera—are
used for legitimising one’s own religious or “magical” identity and tradition.
This also ties in to other, broader questions concerning theoretical
discussions in the study of Western esotericism.
I am actually a Literature scholar at heart, so everything I’m working on
involves the exploration of esoteric contexts in literature, usually in its
English and either Victorian or early twentieth century forms. Right now I’m
finishing up M.A. research on Charles Williams, and I’m also interested in
Yeats and Bulwer-Lytton. Following my MA I’ll be doing PhD research on the
roots of Science Fiction in modern occultism.
[EDW] Considering the
fact that you were undoubtedly very busy with your postgraduate research –
having to ensure that essays and presentations were produced to deadline, and
that all essential readings were done – what made you decide to add to your
already extensive workload and create Correspondences? How did it all
[JE and AR] When
we met in the MA programme at the University of Amsterdam, we realised that we
not only shared an interest in researching Western esotericism, but that we
also had common ideas and opinions on academic knowledge culture and open
access publishing. Since we both have been involved with a few student
magazines in the past, we also felt a need for a platform in which scholars of
all levels (non-affiliated, BA, MA, PhD, Dr.) can publish their peer-reviewed
research and have it read not only within academia but also by the broader
public. And that’s how it all began.
[EDW] For the journal you
managed to assemble an impressive selection of international scholars to fill
the ranks of your editorial board, among them Henrik Bogdan, Amy Hale, and Boaz
Huss. Were they all on board from the very beginning, or was it a long, difficult
process to get them all to sign up?
[JE and AR] We
are very happy to have such excellent scholars on our editorial board. Most of
them joined up at the beginning as there was a real enthusiasm for an open
access journal in the field. Peter Forshaw and Egil Asprem deserve special
credit for their levels of enthusiasm and encouragement about the idea and were
very helpful in getting everything set up.
[EDW] Why did you choose
the title of Correspondences? Was it a clear choice or were you also
keen on any other potential titles?
[JE and AR] We
came up with a few ideas but Correspondences was always the pretty clear
favourite. It definitely won out over Stuff my Prof Says and We’re
Doing This Cause the Aliens Told Us To. We just liked the double
entendre—the name captures our focus on creating an open forum for discussion
surrounding issues related to the field of Western esotericism, and of course
the doctrine of correspondences between above and below is an important aspect
of many “esoteric” philosophies.
is part of a wider trend toward the creation of free-to-read, online peer
reviewed journals not under the control of profit-driven publishing houses. As
part of this, the contributors get to keep the copyright to their own work,
rather than sign it over it to the publishing company. I think that this is a
really great step for the diversification of academia, putting some of the publishing
power back into the hands of academics. Were you both supporters of this wider
movement prior to Correspondences, and what effect do you think it could
have in the academic world?
[JE and AR] We
have both been supporters of the potential of web-based communication for
addressing limitations created by particular power structures in, for example,
the music industry or the journalism industry. However, these are examples of
areas of society where attempts to rejig existing power structures to allow
more control by artists or news providers, and greater, more diverse access for
consumers, seem to be running a little ragged. We hope that in academia the
situation will be somewhat different, but with the ever growing sway of the
neo-liberal university it isn’t hard to see a lot of challenges ahead. Open
access publishing successfully circumvents the limitations placed on both the
speed of publication and the personal control of research, but like other
“industries” that have gone before it, the knowledge economy has a lot of other
power structures within that will continue to prefer older publishing models,
and that have little to do with who is actually behind the publication of
journals. Journal ranking systems, for example, are very important to scholars
of all levels who need to advance in their careers. It takes a brave scholar
indeed to ignore the opportunity to publish in a high ranking journal (most of
which are still produced by publishing companies) and publish in a lower ranked
open access journal instead.
[EDW] Shortly after the
first issue of Correspondences went public, the two of you headed up to
Gothenburg, Sweden for the fourth conference of the European Society for the
Study of Western Esotericism (ESSWE). What was the reception to Correspondences
that you encountered both at ESSWE like, and does it differ from the reception
that you have received more generally? Are you pleased with that response, and
is there anything you intend to change as a result?
[JE and AR] The
reception has been excellent. We wouldn’t say there has been any difference
between the enthusiastic response we’ve received generally and what we heard at
the conference. It was great to have the opportunity to make it to Gothenburg
and join in such a large forum of discussion on a wide variety of topics and
issues related to Western Esotericism. Many of the authors featured in the first
issue and almost all of the Editorial Board members were there as well, so we
got to swap a lot of ideas for future issues.
[EDW] What is in store
for the future of Correspondences? Have you already begun thinking about
issue 1(2)? Do you see it as something that you will continue editing
indefinitely, or do you think that it will have a more limited lifespan, like
the Journal for the Academic Study of Magic that the late Dave Evans and
Alison Butler ran from 2002 to 2010?
[JE and AR] We
have a lot of plans for the future, but we do not want to say too much before
they are finalised. Currently we are working on the next issue of Correspondences
and we have received some really interesting articles that we hope will make it
to the winter issue. As for our future as editors—that rumour about our
divinatory powers turned out to be unsubstantiated. However, in our “best laid
plans” we both plan to work with it for a long time and are also currently
looking into the possibility of hiring a Review Editor.
[EDW] It seems to me that
the academic study of Western esotericism is blossoming at the moment. Not only
are there peer-reviewed outlets like Aries and Correspondences up
and running, but big, established companies like Oxford University Press are releasing
increasing numbers of texts on occultism, and both the University of Amsterdam
and University of Exeter have departments offering postgraduate courses on the
subject. This being the case, I’d be interested to hear where you thought that
the field was headed over the coming decades? Do you see it as constantly
growing in size and influence, or do you think it has just about peaked at its
maximum capacity? Considering the recent austerity spending cuts that have hit Western
universities, do you think it possible that the field might even decline?
[JE and AR] It’s
hard to predict, of course. If we had to guess, we’d say that even if the field
of Western esotericism doesn’t continue to grow, the amount of research being
done in other fields will. We believe that the research that has been done in
the last few decades will promote renewed interest in esoteric ideas, movements,
and figures in fields such as literature, history, religious studies, history
of science, etcetera. The theoretical work which has attempted to highlight the
importance to Western history and culture of figures, movements, and ideas that
have previously been rejected as esoteric will be, and has already been,
particularly influential, as this gives scholars a better framework with which
to approach esoteric material. Look at the field of Literature for example.
Scholars have been attempting to tackle the relationship of writers such as
Blake and Yeats to esotericism for decades—centuries in Blake’s case. However,
with some of the new models that have been developed in order to identify what
esotericism is and how it should be approached in academic research, Literature
scholars can look at these two figures in a clearer light.
[EDW] Jimmy and Aren,
thank you for talking with Albion Calling. I look forward to the next issue of Correspondences.